Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Gentle Moods of Pentecost

Nothing takes only ten minutes, cookbook be damned.

Nothing good, at least.

But there they were at the end of only eight minutes, shells open, wine simmering, garlic rising with the steam. I was opening the lid on the first dinner of mussels that I had prepared on my own.

I had shaken the stock pot back and forth from time to time just as the directions said to do. Fresh parsley, chopped and then scraped off the cutting board onto the closed shells eight minutes earlier, clung now to the yellow meat of the mussels.

I scooped the opened shells out of the pot with a slotted spoon. I strained the broth through a mesh colander and poured it over the bowl of mussels. I pulled off three pieces of sperlonga bread. I treated myself to a glass of the simple wine in which the mussels had been steamed.

Why had I not done this sooner?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ready to Remember

It was a degree in historical performance that my niece received this weekend. Her doctoral robes fit comfortably, as comfortably as her two-year-old son in her arms at the close of the ceremony. Her parents and her aunts and uncles had grown acquainted in recent years with the care required around the harpsichord that she had had built for her practice at home. Those of us who sat with her husband through the two-hour convocation on Saturday searched for her on the screen above the dais and aimed our cameras with pride when the graduates processed in and when they processed out.

We were ready to remember for the long term.

I had spent three evenings this past week getting my apartment clean for the weekend. One of the guests at the convocation would be staying with me. I had the satisfaction of watching the apartment grow quieter and quieter as each room was cleared of clutter, each sink scoured clean, each table-top polished. I carried up from the basement freshly laundered towels and washcloths and bathroom rugs. I pulled the bed sheets tight and plumped the pillows and stood them in their clean cases. The vacuum cleaner had frightened the cat from room to room until she settled under the bed in my room, reluctant to be coaxed out.

And now we are all remembering, each in our own way.

I get to remember in an apartment that is still clean. More towels than usual have hung drying in the bathroom all day. The dishwasher is purring this Sunday evening with double the usual load of cups and mugs and juice glasses.

There were emails through the day. One long-distance call with my brother from New Orleans. New photographs on my niece’s Facebook page.

Late this afternoon I returned to the semblance of a normal weekend and visited a nearby arts center. A former church had been transformed into one of the venues for this open studios weekend. Local artists were showing what their years of training had enabled them to express. I loved one of the old church windows above the displays. The sunlight through the glass reminded me of all the weekends that individuals had sat there ready to respond to well-crafted words and choice music.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Life in Novels

One of the rooms at work has a low bookcase in one corner. Neither the room nor the bookcase is the responsibility of any one person. A number of us use the room regularly, use the top of the bookcase sometimes to rest papers needed in a presentation, often stand up on the two shelves any binders or books a previous presenter may have left behind on the tables.

The bookcase becomes invisible because no one needs to care what is on it.

No one is likely to be charged any time soon with clearing those low shelves. Outdated materials that are there tend to stay, more and more out of date. Superfluous copies of a single item remain multiple and – superfluous. Random books that no one can imagine a reason for keep claiming space.

Meanwhile we live our interesting lives. In the air above that low bookcase, in conversations and discussions and deliberations we pursue goals and work out compromises at the tables in that useful room. We enter and leave according to schedules that show up in emails and message boards. We plug and unplug our laptops. We note people passing in the hall outside the doors. We make our plans for lunch and try to recall what we told ourselves to pick up on the way home from work. Online bank statements record the number of times each month that we visit the electronic teller down the street and how much each withdrawal is.

We know how to tell one another about that life.

Or we think we do.

Then what about the life that I glimpsed yesterday three or four times when I opened at random a book from that low bookcase? No email had told me to open it, no presentation depended on what I found written on the pages of a discarded paperback edition of Madame Bovary that I pulled off the shelf.

Each of the four times I did no more than open to a page and read a sentence, maybe two. Not once did I light on a paragraph narrating a turning point in the story of Emma Bovary, the adulterous character that French novelist Gustave Flaubert had brought to life for readers in the nineteenth century. It was easy each time to return the book to the bookcase and go back to one of the tables where people were working.

Each time I returned the book to the shelf, though, I became more and more aware of having glimpsed a world that I was now putting aside. What kind of world was it, though? What kind of world, what kind of life could there really be in the pages of that printed book that had anything to say to the table of people that I rejoined each time?

What would I need to do to find that out?

I would have to acknowledge the claims of a kind of activity that was interior. People might see me reading a book but they could not see the world that had assumed some kind of reality for me in the moments of reading it.

Do I really meet Emma Bovary in the pages of that book? Or do I meet Gustave Flaubert? Or do I meet me?

I have taken it home, taken that discarded paperback home, taken it for myself from a shelf that remains invisible because no one needs to care what is on it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Spring Abundance

It is starting – that occasional experience of abundance just as I have grown accustomed and even attuned to sparseness.

If I have begun to pride myself on not expecting more than is realistic in a particular situation, exuberance seems suddenly to flame out before me.

Generosity erupts in the face of hopes that I have learned to keep modest.

Not enough snow this winter? Not enough winter? Not enough rain? Not enough sun? The rhododendrons that border the walkway to my front door have emerged, nonetheless, with all their accustomed color and vigor.

I took a Saturday morning walk through a favorite old cemetery for what is usually a solitary pleasure. I needed to follow signs this weekend to find parking given the number of cars lining the cemetery roadways. The deeper into the cemetery I walked, the more visitors I discovered – one crew of birdwatchers aiming their binoculars into the branches high above us, well-heeled visitors driving as close as they could to white tents set up for a reception before the cemetery chapel.

One picture that I took of a venerable old monument became a picture instead of the green background of trees through which the morning sun was flooding. The very shadows in which the monument stands seem green in the picture, so lush is the May growth of leaves.

On Sunday afternoon I headed down to Providence for a visit to a museum of excellent reputation but what I presumed were modest holdings. Thirty-five years living in New England, I did not know what to expect of the RISD Museum. Paintings by Tiepolo and Poussin, Cezanne and Renoir, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent – I kept seeing works that I knew by these artists – I just hadn’t known they were in Rhode Island.

A find of the afternoon was a work by nineteenth-century French artist Charles Alexis Apoil. The portrait he painted of his son and himself hangs in the Grand Gallery. It took my heart away.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Evening Skies

It is one of those wet, cool spring nights in New England.

It is a good evening to have finished supper early. You get to sit with the light of rooms, lamp light and window light, two lights just a little while longer and then one of them will win. And your mood will change in some way that you cannot quite predict while there are still houses bright enough outside that you see them across the street and accept them into your day.

This is the kind of evening you remember with wistfulness and yearning when you are away from home. You might be like my oldest brother in a couple of weeks, walking the streets of Paris for the first time, watching another city’s way of calming down in early evening. The women and men of Paris will be heading home, descending the steps of Metro stations and leaving the sidewalks to visitors. My brother and his wife may briefly miss having a definite place they really want to go back to that evening – or, rather, a place that really wants them back.

Today I have been remembering a neighborhood in Munich through which I was walking on a spring night two years ago. It was a Sunday evening and I had found my way into Lehel for evening prayer at a Franciscan monastery church. No one joined me on the unfamiliar sidewalks although it was not yet dark. It was just Sunday evening, and there was little reason for the women and men of Munich to prefer any place to home. I was neither lonely nor frightened, but I was aware of a great, old city that was going to be itself with only me and a possible few others to see it do that in that neighborhood.

I am listening to German radio these days, thanks to TuneIn Radio. I catch words, recognize the patterns of German sentences without knowing for sure what they are saying. I lean into the German words, excited by the possibility that I might almost understand something from just the tone of the speaker. It takes a while but eventually I admit that there is little enough in what is being said that I really need to hear.

It is just a pleasure to be eager to understand.

It was a pleasure that Munich evening to be walking under a particular sky and to become aware that you were getting to look up into it.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lily of the Valley

A work colleague who hails from France brings in lily of the valley from her yard every May 1.

It feels old-fashioned to hold the bouquet up and marvel at the small flowers, touching them one by one.

Muguet in French. Maiglöckchen in German.

It is curious to find references online to a perfume, first developed by Coty in 1941, based on the scent of lily of the valley.

Another French colleague spoke with me today of a grandmother, now deceased, who used to send her a card from France every May 1. There would always be a crushed sprig of lily of the valley enclosed. No one sends her May 1 greetings anymore, she lamented.